post by Paul Kelleher
Bill responds today to my view that anti-smoker hiring policies are unfair to those who smoke. I have argued that many smokers are victims of social arrangements that confine them to highly constrained socioeconomic situations. These situations are highly correlated with smoking uptake, and since smoking (and/or just feeding an addiction) relieves stress, many smokers are doing nothing irrational or particularly worthy of condemnation. I have made the point that anti-smoker hiring practices promise to make many already disadvantaged smokers even worse off by erecting further barriers to scarce employment opportunities. I would rather see a more compassionate approach that actively helps smokers quit without making them worse off economically. (I do not doubt that Bill also wants to put compassion at the fore, although his last paragraph here does sound a bit harsh to me given that smoking is an addiction that most smokers acquire before they are considered wise enough to vote).
Against my view, Bill claims that the policies I favor amount to "leveling down": my preferred policy is said to sacrifice improvements in average and overall economic well-being for the sake of a narrower variance in social outcomes (assuming, that is, that non-smokers are more productive). Indeed, Bill argues that I favor less variance in social outcomes at the cost of both fewer economic and fewer health improvements, since an increasingly anti-smoker society would contribute to less smoking overall. Bill concedes that less inequality can sometimes justify a loss in aggregate or average outcomes, but not in this case.
Bill hasn't got the dynamics of my argument quite right. I am not in favor of leveling down. I am not, for instance, in favor of intentionally harming the better off in order to reduce the inequality between them and those worse off. Nor am I arguing here for policies that harm the better off as a side-effect of improving the situation of those worse off (although I am in favor of other policies fitting this mold, as I assume Bill is). Each of these sorts of policy would bring the top down and would thereby decrease inequality. But I am advocating for neither. Rather, I am arguing that it is unjust to make the worst off even worse off than they already are. I do concede that this might lead to lower overall health or welfare, at least in the short to medium term. How much lower aggregate health of welfare? Who knows.
My argument type is, then, the third on this list:
1. Worsen the better off in order to reduce inequality.
2. Worsen the better off as a side-effect of policies designed to improve the worst off.
3. Prevent worsening the worst off, even if that interferes with potential improvements for the better off.
In my view, (1) is the hardest to justify and (3) the easiest; I think most would agree with me on at least that. If the worst off referred to in (3) are indeed absolutely badly off for reasons of injustice, then we see that the issue is not as clear cut as simply "mean vs. variance." Mine isn't an aesthetic thesis about the virtue of flat distributions. Nor am I wholly insensitive to foregone improvements for the better off. Instead, I am focusing on a third factor: what we owe to those who already experience the brunt of injustice.
I am therefore against anti-smoker hiring policies for both reasons of compassion and reasons of justice. That does not mean that I think smoking should be "a lifestyle choice that we want to protect" (to quote Bill). I am fine with less draconian attempts to turn people off smoking, such as higher cigarette taxes (used in turn to fund smoking cessation programs) and even greater health care cost sharing for smokers. Erecting greater barriers to employment is, however, going too far in my opinion.